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Archive for July, 2013

Coming in at under a 100 pages, this amusing (and occasionally hilarious) book is a collection of conversations between two men in a Dublin pub, during 2011-2012.  It’s somewhat unusual in that we never learn the men’s names, there are no other characters, and the whole book is just their dialogue.

It really works too.  The men make reference to the news stories of the day (the London Olympics, the deaths of Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston and others, and the whereabouts of Colonel Gadaffi – who one of the men is convinced is working as a cleaner at Dublin Airport), and discuss snippets of their lives.

A funny and enjoyable book, which can be easily read in one sitting.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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This is chronologically the first book in the Hornblower series, but was not the first one which Forester wrote, and so it (presumably) serves as a prequel of sorts.  I wanted to read the Hornblower series, and decided to start with this one, where we first meet Hornblower, at the tender age of 17.  It is the late 1700s, and he is a nervous new recruit to the British Navy.

The book is more of a collection of short stories, rather than a novel.  Each story presents Hornblower with a new dilemma, from having to stand up to a bully (which he does – and how!), dealing with enemy ships from Spain, or transporting a Duchess home across the sea.  Hornblower matures throughout the book, and learns some tough lessons.

I enjoyed the book a lot, although I think that some knowledge of a ship’s structure would have helped when reading this, as there are lots of references to how a ship is built and manned.  However, I could usually understand enough of the jargon to workout exactly what character was doing what task, and in any event, the character of Hornblower himself was enough to keep me reading.

Somewhat stiff and awkward, and not always the most socially confident, but with a strong moral backbone and plenty of courage, I really warmed to the young Hornblower, and enjoyed reading about his adventures.  There were some other interesting characters along the way, and some moments of humour, as well as some sadder events which were described with little emotion.

Overall, while some parts of the book felt somewhat dry, I liked the main character enough to look forward to reading other books in the series.

(For more information about C.S. Forester, please click here.)

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This Clark Gable/Jean Harlow/Myrna Loy film is billed as a comedy, but I thought it was more of a drama, albeit with some funny moments.  Gable (at his most gorgeous – I swooned!) is Van Stanhope, successful publishing executive, who is happily married to Linda (Myrna Loy).  Van’s secretary Helen Wilson, known as Whitey, is played by Jean Harlow.  Linda (wrongly) begins to suspect that Van is cheating on her with Whitey, and her suspicions threaten to destroy their marriage.

All three leads were wonderful.  This was actually the first film I had seen Jean Harlow in, and it was not hard to see why she was so adored.  She was an original blonde bombshell, and I don’t think that most photos of her do her justice.  Gable was wonderful as Van, a devoted husband who was so shrewd in business, but so utterly incapable of recognising his tendency to place himself in situations that made him look guilty even when he wasn’t.  Myrna Loy was beautiful as the confused Linda, who started the film full of warmth and happiness, and became colder and more remote as her suspicions chipped away at her.  James Stewart also appeared in the film as Whitey’s boyfriend Dave, who has his own suspicions about her and Van.  It was a small role, the likes of which Stewart would not play again once his own star had risen in Hollywood, but as ever, he was endearing and sweet.

As mentioned earlier, there were fewer laughs than I had expected, but lots of emotion, and I really enjoyed this film.  I would recommend it to fans of any of the three main leads, or anyone who just enjoys good films.

Year of release: 1936

Director: Clarence Brown

Producers: Hunt Stromberg, Clarence Brown

Writers: Norman Krasna, John Lee Mahin, Alice Duer Miller, Faith Baldwin (story from Cosmopolitan magazine)

Main cast: Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, Jean Harlow

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This story is true, but it is really quite remarkable.  In 1951, a young poor black woman named Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer.  During her treatment, cancerous cells were taken from her body – without the knowledge or consent of Henrietta or any of her family, and these cells became the first to be able to be grown independently.  Even now, more than 60 years later, Henrietta’s cells (known as HeLa) are still being grown, and have been used in numerous – countless even – medical experiments, to help find cures for cancer and AIDS amongst other diseases.  HeLa cells have been launched into space, used in nuclear testing, and…well frankly, all manner of things.  However, her family did not find out about her cells for years, and when they did, it caused them great consternation and confusion.

This quite remarkable book tells the story of the HeLa cells and some of the incredible advancements in medical science in which they have been used, but it also raises the thorny issue of consent and ownership.  (Who DOES own your cells, and is it right that they could be collected and used without your consent?)  Importantly the book also discusses Henrietta as a person, and looks at the effect that the whole matter has had on her descendants, who are still unable to afford their own medical care (in other words, they might not be able to afford the treatments that their own relative’s cells were instrumental in creating).

I found it a fascinating read.  I was concerned that the science parts might be a bit difficult to understand, but Skloot sets it out in a way that makes perfect sense.  She has clearly conducted a huge amount of research into the HeLa cells, and I felt that I learned a lot about them.  For that reason alone it was a worthwhile read, but what I really liked were the parts where Skloot met with members of Henrietta’s family (and in particular, Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, who was literally made ill by all the stress caused when she found out about her mother’s cells).

It really made me think.  I mean, REALLY made me think a lot about the issue of informed consent, and ownership of cells.  On the one hand, if people were classed as the owners of their cells and tissues, they could start demanding money for their use (although after reading this book I don’t actually believe that this would happen a lot).  They also may object to their cells being used in particular kinds of research.  Such objections could slow down scientific and medical progress.  On the other hand, it seems fair that people should have the rights over what happens to parts of their own body.  The book does not attempt to answer the question, but it does look at previous cases, and discusses the opinions of many professionals in the field, who take opposing viewpoints.

I really liked this book a lot, and would definitely recommend it.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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Richard Dreyfuss is daredevil pilot Pete Sandich, who specialises in putting out forest fires, and Holly Hunter is his girlfriend Dorinda Durston, who loves him, but worries about his safety, particularly as he shows no real caution when flying.  Pete is killed in an accident, and in the afterlife he meets an angel (for want of a better word) named Hap, played by Audrey Hepburn in her last film role.  Following her advice, he tries to help his girlfriend through her grief, and mentor novice pilot Ted Baker(!), who falls for Dorinda.

I only really wanted to watch this film for Audrey Hepburn’s appearance.  She isn’t in the film for long, but her parts are lovely, and who better than Audrey to play a serene angel?  She had largely retired from acting at this point, and died four years after this film was made, but it is a fitting role for her swan song.

The film itself was hugely enjoyable, but you will DEFINITELY need tissues, because it is a real tearjerker.  Dreyfuss and Hunter are excellent, and the relationship between Pete and Dorinda is really believable.  John Goodman provides excellent support as Pete’s friend Al, who tries to look out for Dorinda after Pete’s death.  And Brad Johnson plays Ted Baker with sympathy.  Although Pete is hearthbroken to think of Dorinda being with someone else, Johnson makes Ted such a nice guy that it’s hard not to root for  him too.

This film is a remake of A Guy Named Joe (1943), and there are also similarities with Patrick Swayze/Demi Moore film Ghost, although Always preceded Ghost.  (I mean honestly, if Unchained Melody makes you cry because of Ghost, I’m sure that Smoke Gets In Your Eyes will have the same effect after watching Always!)

Overall, this is a beautifully acted, gentle and emotional film.  As mentioned earlier, I watched it purely because of Audrey Hepburn, but it is well worth seeing on its own merits.  I definitely recommend it.

Year of release: 1989

Director: Steven Spielberg

Producers: Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall, Richard Vane

Writers: Jerry Belson, Dalton Trumbo (screenplay ‘A Guy Named Joe’), Frederick Hazlitt Brennan (screenplay adaptation ‘A Guy Named Joe’), Chandler Sprague (story ‘A Guy Named Joe’), David Boehm (story ‘A Guy Named Joe’)

Main cast: Richard Dreyfuss, Holly Hunter, John Goodman, Brad Johnson, Audrey Hepburn

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Adapted from a Thomas Middleton play written in 1605, Director Sean Foley has based this comedy in 1950s London, which is a perfect setting for a filthy, hilarious comedy about sex and money, with plenty of innuendo, and double (and single) entendres.

Dick Follywit decides to con his rich uncle Bounteous Peersucker out of his fortune by playing a Lord, a prostitute and an actor, while in a parallel storyline, Mr Penitent Brothel is madly in love with Mrs Littledick, but her husband’s paranoia about her fidelity prevents them from being together.  Tying both stories together is prostitute Truly Kidman, who poses as a nun in order to become friends with Mrs Littledick and help her meet Mr Brothel in secret.

The action was fast and snappy, and the stage looked wonderful – colourful, glamorous and seedy, and the musical numbers, sung by jazz singer Linda John-Pierre (what an amazing voice!) were wonderful.

The cast were all terrific in their performances, and it’s hard not to imagine that they were having as wonderful a time as the audience.  Richard Goulding and John Hopkins (both of whom were so good in Titus Andronicus, this season, also at the Swan Theatre) could not have been better as respectively, Dick Follywit and Penitent Brothel.  Ian Redford was a joy as Sir Bounteous Peersucker, and the two main female roles, Mrs Littledick and Truly Kidman, played by Ellie Beaven and Sarah Ridgeway, were excellent.  The smaller supporting characters also added to the fun (the audience loved Richard Durden’s portrayal of doddery butler Spunky).

There were lots of scene changes, which were seamlessly done, and as well as lots (LOTS!) of very funny lines, there was also plenty of cleverly done physical comedy.  The whole audience seemed to love this show, and honestly, I think it would be hard not to be drawn in and have a good time.  I came out with a huge smile on my face, with my only regret being that I did not have tickets for subsequent performances!  This play should be mandatory viewing for anyone who needs a good belly laugh.  Simply wonderful.

(For more information about the Royal Shakespeare Company, or this production, please click here.)

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Click here for my review of the English Touring Theatre’s production of this play in 2015.

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This saga tells the story of the Tolliver and the Warwick families, who are two of the three founding families of the town of Howbutker in the Southern States of America.  Along with the third family, the Dumonts, they agree that if one ever offends the other, they would send a red rose to ask forgiveness.  The other family would send a white rose to say that forgiveness had been granted.  They lived alongside each other as neighbours and great friends, until in 1916, young  Mary Tolliver inherits Somerset, their cotton plantation from her father, against the wishes and expectations of her mother and brother.  A rift develops, and matters are made worse when Mary turns down the proposal of handsome Percy Warwick, the timber magnate.  The scene is set for a story that will have consequences for all  families concerned, and for their future generations.

This book was obviously influenced by Gone With The Wind (a precocious Southern belle, who is determined to save her family’s cotton farm at any cost), but it has its own story to tell.  It relates events from three points of view, and only by reading all of them, does the whole picture become clear.

I enjoyed every page of the book – the story had plenty of twists and a few shocks, and I thought it brought the periods described into clear focus.  I liked most of the characters; Mary (like Scarlett O’Hara before her) was not always easy to warm to, but the book did a good job of explaining things from her perspective.

The writing flowed beautifully, even if it had an occasional tendency to get ‘flowery’ and it was one of those books where I kept thinking, “I’ll read just a few more pages.”  I liked the earlier parts of the story – those set in the 1920s and 1930s, more than the modern(ish) section, which showed how the events of years earlier were still reverberating down through the decades.  Nonetheless, the last part did round things off very well.

Although this is quite a big book at more than 600 pages, it didn’t feel like a long read.  I would recommend it, and will look out for more by Leila Meacham.

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